Voulkos' ceramic stacks speak Pop

Times Staff Writer

Peter Voulkos, the artist who led a revolution in ceramics nearly a half-century ago in Los Angeles and who died last year at 78, is typically identified in relation to the verve and swagger of Abstract Expressionist art of the 1950s. His clay was torn, punctured and sliced.

Muscular forms were built, demolished and reconstructed. A reigning pottery aesthetic of harmony and good taste was replaced by one of dynamism and disruption, which spoke of fractures and fissures hidden just beneath the placid surface of the Eisenhower era.

Long unidentified, however, is another critical facet to Voulkos' work--one that emerged slightly later, around 1970, as the tumultuous decade of the 1960s peaked. Suddenly, Pop entered his ceramic vocabulary in a surprising and surreptitious way. For Voulkos' art, it marked a second startling climax.

On the anniversary of Voulkos' death, a thumbnail survey of his career at Frank Lloyd Gallery assembles 35 works, the earliest dating to 1953 and the most recent from 2000. Among them are several examples, in both clay and cast bronze, of a form that proliferated in the 1970s and after. It came to be called a "stack." Often four or more feet tall, the stacks were made by vigorously tearing apart the standard components of a classical ceramic vessel -- foot, body, shoulders, neck -- and then stacking them back up.

The voluptuous if battered vessel that resulted suggests a ravaged body--precarious yet imposing, bowed but unbroken. Topped by a chimney, it also recalls a rudimentary fireplace or ancient stove, calling to mind the fiery kiln in which a lump of clay undergoes its metaphor-laden transformation. The stacks invoke process.

But that's not all. The suggestive shape further summons a specific object, one that's familiar from commercial culture. Slender neck, sloped shoulders, narrowed waist, flared foot--the broad resemblance between a Voulkos stack and the famous silhouette of a Coca-Cola bottle is unmistakable. A Pop icon, celebrated in the art of Rauschenberg and Warhol, lurks within the Abstract Expressionist syntax of these works.

On one level, the Coke bottle makes a wry joke (and not just one that concerns the artist's notorious drug habits). Having liberated pottery from the restrictive prison of traditional crafts, where vessel forms reigned supreme, Voulkos ignited a debate about whether clay could ever be the basis for truly modern sculpture. The brilliance of the Coke bottle was that it cut both ways --a vessel, yes, but inescapably modern, too.

Pop art is only lately being recognized as a catalog of Abstract Expressionist cliches and Modernist dogma spoken in the degraded yet vivifying visual language of commercial culture. By eradicating distinctions between avant-garde and kitsch, it breached a critical wall between church and state. Voulkos' savvy stacks made turnabout fair play, casting a brand new Pop art cliche in hoary old Abstract Expressionist terms. Seen in this way, the stacks resonate anew.

So does Voulkos' subsequent decision to cast the breakable clay forms in eternal bronze, sculptural material of the establishment museum. Their voluptuous organic metaphors for the human body, pierced through with holes, make an affectionate shambles of Henry Moore, whose punctured bronze sculptures had become the official international signpost that one was entering the vaunted precinct of Modern art.

Frank Lloyd Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, through April 5. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Line, shape, space all formed by yarn

Brazilian artist Waltercio Caldas builds on a venerable tradition of Latin American Constructivist art that meshes quite neatly with an installation aesthetic of Light and Space, familiar to Los Angeles. He's not the first artist to use yarn or string to articulate planes of space that create perceptual conundrums, but he has the capacity to make surprising magic from the flimsiest materials.

Caldas, 56, is showing two recent works and five from the 1990s in his third solo show at Christopher Grimes Gallery. (He's shown mostly in Brazil and Europe.) Most compelling are two from "The Nearest Air Series" (1991), in which a few unadorned lengths of yarn suspended from the ceiling possess remarkable presence. Drawings in space, the works delineate rectangular planes and ovals with such elegance and clarity that walking into their territory feels almost like a violation.

In one, two hanging arcs of crimson and blue crisscross, flanked by two hanging straight lines. The other is composed of a different configuration of two arcs and two parallel lines, these in purple and green. Caldas anchors the yarn in the ceiling in straight lines or perpendicular configurations, and gravity does the rest. The eye reads the yarn as spatial contour, but the space around these chimerical shapes flows through them. Line, shape and space seem to merge in and out of one another -- and they encompass you.

Other works pair suspended yarn with shapes cut from vinyl or painted on the wall. The yarn projects the flat wall-bound shape into the volume of the room, sometimes at dynamic angles. The projections allow for a disconcerting illusion that a visitor has entered the space of a flat shape.

Three other, more recent pieces incorporate stainless steel rods. One tangles the outline of a bottle in yarn, blending Constructivism with Boccioni's Futurist sculpture "Development of a Bottle in Space." They make for compact, portable objects. But, like diagrams, they also lose the unassumingly ethereal quality of the breezy yarn.

Caldas is at his best when he's working with the least.

Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through April 5. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Into the void with Sam Francis

Ace Gallery has opened an annex in Beverly Hills, and given the gargantuan space of the mother ship in a former department store near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it was to be expected that the annex would also be huge. For its debut, the new space is showing paintings from the so-called "Edge Series" that were painted by Sam Francis (1923-1994) between about 1965 and 1970. (Works from the series had their L.A. debut in 1986 at Ace Gallery's old space in Venice; a huge post-"Edge" work begun that year is also here.) They're among his largest, most enveloping works.

As the name suggests, the big white canvases are painted only along the edges. Laying the canvas flat on the floor, Francis used saturated acrylic pigments -- crimson, emerald, vivid yellow, royal blue, etc. -- in a watery suspension that let the color puddle, bleed and pool. Acrylics, which are plastic-based paints, were new in the 1960s. Their capacity to be fluid, unlike oil paint, prodded experimentation by numerous artists.

Francis's "Edge Series" paintings are productively regarded as gigantic watercolors. In them, postwar American abstraction came full circle. The loose, lively, unconsciously emotive handling of paint in automatic drawing often began as small watercolors, while Abstract Expressionism brought automatist painting to monumental scale. Francis wed one with the other.

He started with works on paper, several of which are on view. (An upstairs gallery, not yet open, will offer 13 more.) Eventually, canvases grew to be 20 feet long and 12 feet high.

The big works revel in the meditative vastness of the white canvas, while the boundary strips of rapturous color act like prismatic eruptions from the central field. The attempt, erratically achieved, is to make emptiness feel voluminous and full -- to set a Western concept of the void against an Eastern one. Francis's white paintings from the 1950s and his lush "Blue Balls" paintings of the early 1960s remain the pinnacles of his career; but the "Edge Series" is not without important resonance.

Ace Gallery Beverly Hills, 9430 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 935-4411, indefinitely. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Suspended amid different worlds

The new paintings by British artist Mark Francis at Michael Kohn Gallery speak of a journeyman sensibility. They wear their lineage on their sleeve: Gerhard Richter, Brice Marden, Terry Winters, Ross Bleckner -- even Jackson Pollock. So it's to Francis' credit that he manages to make the work his own.

Slipping into the well-trod realm between abstraction and representation, the six paintings and three works on paper are composed from long, looping lines.

They soon reveal themselves to be based on draped lengths of knotted wire or string.

Sometimes smudged, they float in front of and within hazy fields (think frosted glass), which are occasionally populated by gray spots and fuzzy orange lozenges. The images picture suspension, which also describes the microscopic pigment suspended in its oil medium and the physical canvas hanging on the wall.

The surfaces are similarly playful -- some oily and light reflective, others flat and absorbent. In one, scabby blotches of red, black and ochre resin colonize the flat plane. The result is an ambiguous set of mysterious, organic images. They seem poised between growth and decay, disconnection and coupling, membranes and impermeable walls.

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Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., (323) 658-8088, through March 29. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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